This is a picture of the Chef, hard at work in our living room, planning his menu. He may look angry, but he’s not. He’s busy concentrating, looking out the window at the Olympic Mountains, imagining flavor combinations and ways to make his menu gluten-free. I love watching him plan menus. He scribbles and crosses out, searches through books, looks online at menus (never to copy, just for inspiration), consults his favorite book — the one that tells him which flavors combine best with another flavor — and writes down more ideas, consults his lists of what will be fresh at the farmers’ markets that week, and then — voila! His eyes grow wide, he opens his mouth to let out a little puff of air, and he lets out a little, “ohhhhhhhh.”
I always bother to ask, “What? What? What have you thought of now?” But I can’t really expect him to answer yet. If it is a great idea, he just can’t talk for a few moments. He starts to chew, without knowing it, which is a good sign. That means he can taste it already. And for the next month, his customers will be cooing and making that same noise as they eat meals from that menu he so carefully creates every month.
Now, here’s the deal. If the Chef — who knows food instinctually, wants to make sure he can make everything gluten-free so I can taste it, and wants fervently to keep me well — can make me sick accidentally, then anyone can.
To be fair to him, it wasn’t actually with his food. We were kissing. Normally, he is vigilant about waiting to kiss me until he can brush his teeth if he has eaten bread. In fact, in moments of passion and gratitude, I’ll reach my lips toward him, and he’ll remember to turn his cheek toward me instead. My heart melts a little, every time. But once, this past summer, we both forgot. And then there were bread crumbs from his mouth in mine. And the next day, I was sick.
This can be difficult, no question. The other day, I posted about some ideas for how to make our Thanksgivings gluten-free with ease. Much of it revolved around how to talk to our families, and convince them to not poison us, to take it all seriously. So many of you wrote to me, thanking me for the piece, that I know this is necessary for us all.
But, the next day, a good friend of mine wrote to me, with a different question, something I hadn’t considered writing about:
“Hey there Shauna. I just had a thought. With a gluten free T-day, just because well– meaning family and friends forgoes the stuffing, doesn’t mean gluten can’t sneak in the oddest of places. For example, yesterday’s post features a photo of blue cheese. Before you, I never even considered how the yummy veins got blue! If I recall correctly, French blue cheese comes from bread mold… Right?
I gotta say, I’m just as challenged as the next when it comes to thinking of gluten free stuff sometimes (your recent pot luck, for example). I pore over my cookbooks.…excited to make some yummy dish to share with people who really love food. I found page after page sneaking in gluten somehow. A binder of flour or want that terrine to unmold…better not use butter and flour on the edges. Thickening soups with a crust of bread. A little semolina here and there. Until I read the Bob Mill package, I had no idea semolina comes from durham…prized for its high gluten ability. I also had no idea some soy sauces had gluten. On and on it went.
For those living the gluten free lifestyle, food does not have to be boring. Of course, the first step is to educate yourself…then be diligent. But for those of us who share the occasional meal with a gluten free loved one, it’s a huge challenge. Of course I have no intention of making anyone sick, and it’s especially challenging when you’ve even mentioned getting sick from gluten free food that was cross contaminated at the factory…
I guess in some ways, I’m sending out an SOS. For those of us who have gluten free folk in our lives, what kind of unassuming things should we be aware of?”
Thank you, Traca. I’m certain that many people reading are feeling the same way. And so, spurred by your thoughtful letter, let me offer my humble suggestions.
(These are directed at the family and friends who will be making the food, if they won’t let you make everything. However, feel free to send your family and friends this post and tell them I am talking directly to them.)
Make everything from scratch. Celery, turkey, cranberries, and sweet potatoes in their pure form do not contain gluten. They never will. If we make everything from scratch with whole ingredients, you will reduce any chance of accidentally feeding someone gluten, dramatically. There are other steps — they will follow this one — but this one is the lynchpin. So many processed foods contain gluten that it is astounding. Trader Joe’s sells a boxed chicken broth that you might be tempted to buy for your gravy, but if you look at the ingredients list, it contains barley malt flavoring. One sip of that would set me back three days. And, as I have been saying repeatedly throughout the pages of this website, food we make from scratch will always taste better than food from a box. Homemade chicken stock always rocks. Many people, I know, make gravy from little seasoning packets. At the risk of offending some of you — ewwwww. Gravy from scratch is remarkably easy to make. In fact, I’m going to show you how in the next couple of days. Please, please don’t make gravy by ripping off the top of an envelope.
Involve your gluten-free friend or loved one in the process. You may think you are being pesky if you call me up and ask me about the ingredient of every dish, but believe me, I will feel a warm, glowing feeling toward you for months from that action alone. Friends sometimes tell me, sheepishly after the fact, that they weren’t even entirely sure what gluten is, but they were afraid to ask for fear of looking silly. I say — look silly! Go ahead and ask. There is no gluten in potatoes, sugar, green beans, pomegranates, or fresh-made apple cider. But I (and any of the rest of us) will happily tell you that, with patience and love.
And if you have no idea what gluten is, check this old post of mine: What the heck is gluten anyway?
It’s not as easy as substituting rice flour for wheat. You may mean well, and I’m sure you do, but if you throw together cinnamon rolls using your grandmother’s recipe and simply substitute rice flour for Gold Medal white flour, you are going to be sincerely disappointed. So will the rest of your guests. And then, your gluten-free loved one might feel guilty, thinking, “I’ve ruined everyone’s Thanksgiving.” Gluten-free baking is an art and a science. It requires lots of experimentation and mistakes. Ask your gluten-free guest to provide the baked goods, if she feels comfortable with them. If not, try making something from a gluten-free mix, available online or in health food stores, co-ops, and Whole Foods. There are a veritable plethora of them now.
Modified food starch, soy sauce, and oats. After the Food Labelling Act of 2004 finally went into action in early 2006, our lives grew easier. Now, every packaged food should say, at the bottom of the ingredients: contains wheat. (If it does, that is.) That saves an enormous amount of time. I pick up a bottle, see that, and put it down. Soy sauce will say that. Most products with modified food starch will say that. However, this act does not solve our woes. Barley shows up as a flavoring more times than I can count, including most commercial corn flakes. Modified food starch could be made from corn or soy, or wheat, or barley. Blue cheese won’t say contains wheat, but if it is made in Europe (or made in America under artisan craftsmen), the mold for it will have come from bread, originally. And yes, that can make us sick. Also, commercially produced oats are mostly contaminated with gluten. Many a friend has happily shown me the box of healthy, wheat-free crackers he has brought to my house, only to be disappointed when I show him that it contains oat flour, and thus I cannot eat it. Wheat-free does not mean gluten-free. Please, remember this.
Only use a packaged product if it says gluten-free. There are hundreds of products on the market that seem, from the list of ingredients, to not contain gluten. Even after you have figured out all the ways that gluten can hide, you can still make someone sick. I’ve done it to myself, because I wasn’t careful. Some manufacturers are kind enough to say, “…manufactured in a facility that also manufactures gluten.” When I read that, I put the food down. However, that’s not all food producers. I have been glutenized by tortilla chips by a company that I later found out fries the chips in the same fryer and oil as gluten-filled products. Was it on the label? No. Why did I eat it? I just got stupid for a day. And I paid the price. Therefore, I would suggest that you only buy products that a) say gluten-free on the box, or b) your gluten-free loved one has confirmed herself is gluten-free. This may seem draconian, but it is worth it.
Avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen. Last Thanksgiving, I was sick for the entire weekend after the big day. Why? When I made my gluten-free stuffing, and my brother made his regular stuffing for the rest of the family, he made the mistake of telling me to put mine in a casserole dish exactly the same shape and color as his. When the big buffet line started, the two stuffings sat side by side, with a spoon between them. It wasn’t until my second helping that I realized that spoon had been back and forth in both pans a dozen times, and I had just eaten gluten. Ugh.
You can prevent this by being meticulous in the kitchen. Do not cut anything on a wooden cutting board, because it can trap gluten in the surface, no matter how much you wash it. (Besides, the plastic boards are so much more handy in the kitchen.) Do not use your regular toaster to toast the gluten-free bread, because the lingering bread crumbs will make us sick. Finally, keep the gluten-free food and the regular food in separate areas of the kitchen, and educate everyone at the house about the dangers of double-dipping the spoon. Everyone will benefit from this. Again, ask your gluten-free loved one for advice on this. We can help.
Be mindful. There’s a little secret no one really tells you in cookbooks: when you cook with mindfulness and concentration, your food tastes better than when you rush. And if you are mindful in the way you try to avoid gluten, your Thanksgiving dinner will taste better for it.
Make us feel included. As kind as it may be to make one dish that is gluten-free, so we can at least eat salad, it makes gluten-free folks feel like alien beings. It’s like perpetually sitting at the kids’ table, while all the adults are laughing and talking. As much as some people don’t want to make a fuss, no one wants to just eat a salad on Thanksgiving day. How about an entirely gluten-free Thanksgiving? That’s what the Chef and I are sharing with my family. The stuffing will be made from gluten-free bread. We’re going to make the gravy from scratch, with sweet rice flour for the roux. Cranberry chutney, green beans with carmelized onions and bacon, roast turkey, sweet potatoes, and mashed potatoes — none of that needs gluten. And I make a mean pumpkin pie with a gluten-free crust now, one which no one guesses it is missing the gluten. (Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how.) Why not focus on the food that naturally does not contain gluten? You might be surprised at how much better that meal tastes for the trouble you take.
Why is any of this important? Because for those of us who have celiac, one speck of crumbs really can make us sick for days. If you would like to see proof of this, check out this photo from my dear reader-friend, Sasha, who bravely posted this photograph and explanation of how she grew sick from a little bit of gluten. Read what she has to say. She put it perfectly. (Sasha, I hope you don’t mind that I linked to you, here. I just want everyone to know.)
With a little care and mindfulness, we can all have a fabulous Thanksgiving. If you are mourning the loss of traditional dishes, please remember this: there is more at stake here than your grandmother’s stuffing. As a lovely woman named Wendy wrote to me the other day, “My daughter was diagnosed in April of this year. This is our first holiday season with a healthy girl!” Isn’t the celebration of that far more important than eating the exact-same foods you have eaten all your life?
Let this holiday be a true day of gratitude. Let’s eat well and celebrate.